The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Instead of focusing on diversity on campus, we need to focus on equality

Elite institutions have added minority students, but their cultures are still rooted in white supremacy.

Washington University in St. Louis campus. (Google Earth)

On July 31, a white employee at Smith College called campus police to report Oumou Kanoute, a rising black sophomore working on campus this summer, as a suspicious person. Kanoute was simply eating her lunch in a quiet campus space, which the police confirmed after interrogating her. Earlier in July, 10 incoming black students at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) were stopped by police in Clayton (the wealthy municipality where WUSTL is partly located) because employees of a local IHOP reported a “dine and dash.” The students had their receipts, but the police forced them to return to the restaurant and released them only after IHOP employees dismissed them as suspects.

These situations reflect the racism that black students continue to face at historically white institutions and in the communities surrounding them, even as schools proudly extoll their commitment to diversity. While for the past 50 years many elite private K-12 schools and universities have embraced the inclusion of black students, the presence of these students has only just begun to destabilize the culture of white supremacy and racism on which these schools were founded. Diversity has become a widely touted asset at these institutions, but simply celebrating inclusivity has not necessarily made it an actual reality.

Since the 1960s, African Americans have increasingly gained access to elite K-12 schools (or independent schools). Northeastern schools like Phillips Academy Andover and Choate Rosemary Hall welcomed greater numbers of black students, as Southern schools like the Westminster Schools in Atlanta voluntary desegregated.

The move to desegregate came amid disparate local, state, regional and national pressures. Consider for example the experiences of Westminster, founded in 1951, in Atlanta. Under the leadership of Mayor William B. Hartsfield, Atlanta was the “city too busy to hate” with city leaders beginning to act pragmatically on race issues to allow it to flourish economically. But the school also faced state policymakers who pushed rigid segregationist policies. Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, private schools like Westminster benefited from white families rushing to enroll their children in private schools.

By 1957, William Pressly, the school president for its first two decades, was immersed in the growing national conversations about race among independent school leaders who wanted to distinguish their schools from segregationist academies that emerged to resist court-mandated integration.

As civil rights activists won policy battles and captured hearts and minds during the 1960s, elite private schools like Westminster faced increasing pressure to amend their discriminatory admissions policies. As the decade progressed, they also gained additional economic incentives to desegregate when it became apparent that institutions with discriminatory admissions policies might lose their tax-exempt status.

In 1965, Westminster announced an open admissions policy, and in 1967 enrolled its first black student students. But professing inclusion did not erase decades of white supremacy ingrained in these schools’ cultures. The first black students to desegregate Westminster encountered a complicated school environment in which white students celebrated the old South through programs and events and held “slave auction” fundraisers but also included a small, vocal cadre of white students who spoke against racism.

The latter, however, did not prevent the black students from enduring overt and subtle racism, including physical and verbal harassment, stares, inappropriate humor and racial epithets written on their notebooks. Malcolm Ryder, who desegregated the dormitories in 1968, would return to his room to find his portion vandalized and a hunting knife sticking outside of his closet door.

Yet, thanks to their talents and skill — nurtured by their families and the segregated black schools they previously attended — and aid from both white and black allies, the first black students courageously navigated Westminster and succeeded inside and outside the classroom. They ultimately matriculated to top colleges and universities, which were also becoming more diverse.

These institutions labored to boost minority populations for several reasons. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, black students increasingly demanded better conditions on campus. They called for more black students, more financial aid to support black students and the establishment of black studies programs. Concurrently, affirmative action debates, federal calls for quantifying diversity and tax-exemption status requirements made it clear to higher education leaders that they would need to consider race as part of their admissions process.

Yet just because leaders at these white institutions came to value having some level of racial diversity within their student populations, it did not instantaneously change institutional cultures and practices so to provide black students with a sense of ownership and belonging. Too often, black students themselves have been the main driver of real change, but that limits how much change occurs and how quickly it takes place. Black students cannot be the only group on campus promoting racial dialogues and greater racial understandings.

When I was a graduate student at Emory University, the Transforming Community Project attempted to engage multiple stakeholders — administrators, faculty, staff and students — to discuss Emory’s racial past and present. Yet, this effort was undercut when the former president offered the three-fifths compromise as an example of a good compromise, a blunder that one would think a black president would not make. Despite there being more black administrators today, presidents of elite institutions are nearly all white, with Ruth Simmons being the only black woman to have led an Ivy League institution.

And the events at Smith and WUSTL vividly illustrate why these institutions need more black leaders and why stakeholders at every level must prioritize an inclusive culture in addition to simply boosting minority enrollment rates. These predominantly white institutions need to confront the culture of white supremacy that persists even as diversity has grown. They should continue to examine the role of slavery and slave-holding central to the building and founding of their institutions, to push for more black students and financial aid to black students, to have more black faculty and senior administrators, to make institutions more equitable for all, to complicate the meaning and use of diversity and inclusion rhetoric and to understand and counter police brutality.

At the heart of past and present activism is a desire to have “being black” in all of its vastness acknowledged and understood. Black students want to be able to eat their lunches, rest and nap in common spaces and critique their institutions without fear. They want to be valued academically and socially, and to walk the streets surrounding their institutions without being treated like they do not belong. Institutions cannot rest on their laurels because of individual black student success or past reforms.

Smith College has now placed the white worker who called the police on leave and hired an outside investigator to examine what occurred. Administrators at WUSTL responded swiftly and pushed the Clayton Police Department to issue a sincere apology and to take concrete actions to examine how the department interacts with people of color. These are good steps, but institutions must move broadly to create an environment that is welcoming to all students.

I often teach my students about the changes that have occurred in predominantly white institutions, but events like these suggest to them that not much has changed since predominantly white institutions readily embraced black students in the 1960s and 1970s — only large-scale institutional and cultural changes will alter their reality.